Some years later, two men and a cat are tying one on in a bar that doesn’t exist. (146)
Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando put the quirky author in the running for the 2006 Hugo Award. It follows an early twenty-first century maverick, his ever-upgrading artificial cat, and his descendants into a future affected by a technological singularity, the downloading of consciousness, nanotechnology, artificial and posthuman sentience, and alien contact.
Stross created the novel from a series of related stories, and the plot does not summarize easily. It begins with Manfred Marcx, a wildly-successful near-future entrepreneur who rarely makes money. He prefers to exchange money-making ideas for favours, and thus leads a good life without being tied to financial institutions. He also has an artificial cat, Aineko, who gradually upgrades to sentience.
Marcx separates from his domineering dominatrix wife, Pamela, and later sends Aineko to help their daughter escape from what the girl perceives to be a stifling childhood. Amber Marcx ends up working in space and, through a series of developments, becomes the ruler of a small but successful colony. She, Aineko, and others later download copies of themselves to crew a tiny starship boldly responding to an alien signal. The novel follows their adventures, and also their return to a very different solar system, where Amber and her now-adult son will play a pivotal role in preserving a segment of humanity against the encroachment of the "Vile Offspring," the posthumans who are dismantling the planets and turning the solar system into a Matrioshka Brain.
This leads to the final part of the novel (and the set-up for its sequel), where the plot grows strange.
Stross makes his bizarre world comprehensible through computer-related analogies. Software, hardware, routers, downloading, internet and gaming avatars et cetera all become analogies and analogues for the futuristic concepts he envisions. I doubt this book could have been written before the present era, and it certainly would not have found an audience of any size. Those with little interest in computers and SF will likely find it irritating and incomprehensible.
Accelerando examines a possible future and comments on current and long-standing aspects of the human condition. Stross's characters, for example, can separate themselves into multiple identities. He's reflecting on a situation which may come to pass, but regardless of its plausibility, it provides opportunities to think about identity.
At one point, Manfred Macx loses his glasses, which function as external computer support, and he can barely function. Doubtless this would happen if we became dependent on implants--- but does anyone else, right now, find their mind functioning differently, perhaps even failing at certain tasks, because these cool things called "computers" can access so readily the answers to most factual questions? How much of our brain function is affected by a palm pilot? Or, for that matter, by the ability to write things down on a piece of paper?
The thug who takes the glasses, meanwhile, thinks he’s got a golden ticket to riches beyond his imagination. The problem, of course, is that he doesn’t have much of an imagination. He fails to understand the technology and his base assumptions about how to use it are ridiculously out of date. I suspect most of us can see a parallel with the players involved in various current events.
Other books explore the same speculative elements as Stross, but few develop so thoroughly their consequences. Compare, for example, his handling of downloadable consciousness with that found in Robert Sawyer’s Mindscan or David Brin’s Kiln People. Both of these authors place artificial restrictions on the technology in order to make their stories work. Stross creates societies where people copy, download, and reboot themselves the way we do computer files, and follows through on the implications.
He also presents an interesting, if not wholly original solution to the Fermi Paradox. Technological civilizations inevitably experience a technological singularity, one result of which is that they neither leave their system nor communicate with ordinary intelligences. Vernor Vinge and others have postulated the same solution, but Stross develops the answer and its implications further than anyone else I’ve read. As for first contact with extraterrestrials, it occurs frequently in SF, but rarely looks as it does here:
The Tuileries are full of confused lobsters.
Aineko has warped this virtual realm, implanting a symbolic gateway in the carefully manicured gardens outside. The gateway is about two meters in diameter, a verdigris-coated orouborous loop of bronze.... Giant black lobsters—- each the size of a small pony—- shuffle out of the loop’s baby blue field, antennae twitching. They wouldn’t be able to exist in the real world, but the physics model here has been amended to permit them to breathe and move, by special dispensation.
Amber sniffs derisively as she enters the great reception room of the Sully wing. "Can’t trust that cat with anything," she mutters. (180-81)
Stross provides reasonable explanations for why the aliens have taken the form of crustaceans, what they're doing in a simulated Tuileries, and why Amber holds the cat responsible.
Accelerando features Stross's usual nerd jokes, including a cameo by H.P. Lovecraft—"some boringly prolix pulp author from the early twentieth, with a body phobia of extropian proportions," according to the character Rita (337). The parodic echo of Lovecraft's style should be clear to anyone who has read him.
Stross presents many characters and keeps them credible despite pressures and circumstances that conventional writers don’t face. It takes talent to plausibly handle characterization in a world where people have multiple incarnations. Still, more could have been done with these characters, and Stross misses opportunities. When the downloaded crew of the Field Circus return, we learn the fates of their originals in a few paragraphs of Infodump. Those stories could have been a fascinating, developed part of this novel.
Given that Stross juggles so many ideas and follows through on their implications, one might expect and excuse a certain amount of infodump. The regular updates on human and posthuman history I accepted and enjoyed. However, Stross later uses these bolded sections to explain character’s motivations and backstory. He occasionally tells us things about characters we should have been shown, and in some cases could already guess. Lengthy dialogues take place (172-73 of the hardcover edition, for example) to explain and clarify. He’d do better to tell a smaller part of the story and allow his readers to understand his world through narrative rather than by notes. Accelerando, the first of two parts, by itself could have been a trilogy.
Stross has not yet lived up to the promise of his debut novel, Singularity Sky, but he has, with Accelerando produced another entertaining and thought-provoking book.
The book has been made available as a free download.